The digital century: Tech trailblazers
November 24, 1999
November 24, 1999
by the PC World staff
(IDG) -- It might seem as though the World Wide Web burst on the scene fully realized in the mid-1990s, but it was a long time abornin'. In 1945 a government scientist named Vannevar Bush theorized about a futuristic communications device that he dubbed a memex, which in retrospect sounds amazingly like a browser-equipped PC. In 1960, Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext, conceived a Weblike information network called Project Xanadu (a project he's still working on today). And of course, the Web sits atop the infrastructure established by the ARPAnet in 1969.
But the Web really got going in March 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee, a British software engineer at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, devised a system that would allow the lab's researchers to share disparate documents in hyperlinked, browsable form. By 1992, his project -- dubbed the World Wide Web -- had begun to catch on among the Internet's then-exclusive populace of scientists and researchers. Among its fans was Marc Andreessen, an undergrad with a job at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. In 1993, working with NCSA programmer Eric Bina, Andreessen designed a highly graphical point-and-click browser, named NCSA Mosaic. The Web's popularity began to skyrocket -- especially after Andreessen and Bina joined a start-up called Netscape in 1994 and spearheaded the creation of an even better browser, known as Navigator.
How fast has the Web grown? Put it this way: It took five years for the number of servers on the Web to go from 0 to around 1500. Another five years later, the number of servers has surpassed 7 million, and the figure keeps growing.
Michael Dell's days as a dorm-room tycoon are part of computer industry lore. But his real innovation was the direct-sales model. By cutting out the retailer, he revolutionized the way PCs were sold. "They're not just the company that made the box, they're the people that sold it to you," says Roger Kay, research manager for International Data Corporation in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Now with $18 billion in revenue, Dell is a long way from UT's Dobie Center dormitory. But his namesake company continues to lead the way in direct computer sales, most recently by pioneering direct sales over the Internet. Not bad for a college dropout.
Hopper questioned conventions all her life. By 1955, prompted by a desire to write programs that would allow nonscientists to use computers, she'd developed Flow-matic -- the first computing language to use words such as "count" and "display." In 1959 that program grew into Common-Business-Oriented Language, which Hopper wrote with colleagues at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. COBOL revolutionized the way computers operated, marking the first time they responded to words rather than numbers.
Former students remember Hopper as a colorful and dynamic character. "I was a freshman at Vassar in 1934 and I was completely enamored with [her] teaching," remembers Winifred Asprey, the founder of the computer science department at Vassar. "She also taught me how to smoke."
Veni, Vidi, VisiCalc
Toiling in an attic in Arlington, Massachusetts, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston devised the program in 1979. By adding up columns and rows of numbers on the fly, their software revolutionized number-crunching and completed in seconds tasks that would take an accountant hours to finish. More than 700,000 copies of the $99 program sold, making it the most popular software of its time.
But Bricklin and Frankston never patented VisiCalc, and by the mid-eighties Lotus's more sophisticated 1-2-3 had eclipsed it in sales. That program was in turn surpassed by Microsoft's Excel.
Bricklin and Frankston's design days weren't over. Bricklin went on to create the Trellix Web-publishing program, and Frankston pioneered home networking via phone lines.
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